A comment to an answer of this question mentions that ambiguity can arise with a reflexive pronoun when both the independent clause and the clause with the reflexive pronoun have third-person subjects. A minimal example of this kind of ambiguity is:

Dixit Marcum se odisse.

Based on my reading, this could mean either that Mark hates himself or that Mark hates the speaker. (And I suppose there is also nothing to prevent this from meaning that the speaker hates Mark....)

Two questions:

  1. Is this sentence truly ambiguous? Are there perhaps rules that govern what the antecedent really is in cases like this?

  2. If it is, what options do I have to remove ambiguity? One option that comes to mind would be to use semetipsum if the meaning is that Mark hates himself.

  • 4
    L&S, meaning F.2, says Ipse defines the subject of a reflexive pronoun. It seems you are right. Wouldn't it be disambiguated in the opposite direction by using a third-person pers. pronoun instead of the reflexive? Like in Dixit Marcum illum odisse
    – Rafael
    Commented Aug 2, 2016 at 16:00
  • 1
    @Rafael, I think Dixit Marcum illum odisse can only mean "He(1) says that Marcus hates him(2)", i.e. illum would not be the speaker.
    – TKR
    Commented Nov 19, 2016 at 23:27
  • 2
    Alessandra Bertocchi discussed your Q1 in her 1989 paper "The role of antecedents of Latin anaphors" (in benjamins.com/#catalog/books/slcs.17/main)
    – Alex B.
    Commented May 4, 2017 at 4:36
  • 1
    The following corpus search for "eum se" includes (amongst >75% false positives) several examples. My quick reading shows the se always refers to eum, not the other subject.
    – brianpck
    Commented May 4, 2017 at 14:38

3 Answers 3


As Pinkster 2015 writes,

There is an immense literature concerning the rule or rules for the use of the reflexive in subordinate clauses (p. 1125).

Here’s a summary of most important points found in volume 1 “The Simple Clause”, section 11.124 of Pinkster 2015 magisterial “The Oxford Latin Syntax” (pp. 1120-1137).

Your question is about indirect reflexives (other terms: long-distance reflexives or long-distance anaphors).

Pinkster explains it as follows,

In complex sentences a constituent of the subordinate clause may be coreferential with a constituent of its own clause (normally the subject) or with a constituent of the governing clause, not necessarily the subject (p. 1124). e.g.

vos ex M. Favoniox audistis Clodium sibix dixisse ... periturum Milonem triduo (Cic. Mil. 44).

illamy suamx suasy res sibiy habere iussitx... (Cic. Phil. 2.69)

He notes that “the reflexive pronoun usually follows the constituent it is coreferential with” (p. 1135). Pinkster also discusses four cases when the reflexive pronoun is the preferred choice – rather than the possessive adjective (non-finite clauses, restrictive relative clauses etc.).

Pinkster also argues that the use of the indirect reflexive decreased during time and other anaphoric forms – such as the pronoun “is” and the demonstrative “ille” – took its place. He mentions that the latter “is” and “ille” are usually coreferential with a non-subject though (p. 1133).

Pinkster discusses several examples (mostly from Cicero and Livy) where confusion is avoided by using the pronoun “is” (instead of “se” or “suus”) – see pp. 1133-1135 for further discussion/details, e.g.

Milesios navem poposcit quae eum praesidii causa Myndum prosequeretur. (Cic. Ver. 1.86)

Pinkster writes that "eum" here "indicates that Cicero is responsible for the insertion of this specification, and that it was not (necessarily) part of Verres' demand" (p. 1133).

Now, about your example sentence.

Solberg 2011 argues that

"The LDAs [long-distance anaphora - Alex] in reported complement, which I have called the normal Latin LDAs, obligatorily take as antecedent the noun referring to the person whose thought the clause expresses" (p. 117).


The reflexive in Latin may be considered a device for marking the speaker’s attitude towards the participants in the event that he is describing. When the speaker identifies himself with the subject’s (or topic’s) point of view, that is, when he presents the facts from the perspective of the subject (or of the topic), then the reflexive is used (Bertocchi 1989: 455).

In linguistics, this phenomenon is called logophoricity.

Thus, there are two competing readings of your example sentence.

  1. Dixiti Marcum sei odisse.

    The referent of the subject of the matrix clause reported what he thinks about Mark (the thinker is not Mark), cf. I think Mark hates me. Or,

  2. Dixit Marcumi sei odisse.

    The referent of the subject of the matrix clause merely reported what Mark said (the thinker is Mark), cf. Mark told me he hates himself.

  • 1
    Based on this, would you say that the example sentence is truly ambiguous?
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented May 6, 2017 at 22:50
  • Really tough to choose which answer to award the bounty to, but this answer does a great job of citing authoritative scholarly sources.
    – brianpck
    Commented May 10, 2017 at 13:08
  • 1
    I did some formatting changes, mostly to make it clearer where the quotes are: feel free to roll back if any of the changes compete with your intentions.
    – brianpck
    Commented May 10, 2017 at 13:12

1. Yes, it's ambiguous.

This is only a hypothesis, inspired somewhat indirectly by this Marginalia blog post. I don't have nearly enough experience with the language to give this hypothesis much credibility—or to reject it, so here goes. Hopefully someone more knowledgeable can debunk it or corroborate it in comments. Do not take this as in any way authoritative. This post is essentially me thinking out loud.

  • Se refers to the subject currently having things said about it—not necessarily the grammatical subject, but the current grammatical "topic", regardless of its grammatical case.

  • The ambiguity occurs when multiple antecedents can reasonably be understood as the current topic—as happens inside a subordinate clause. The main clause has a topic and the inner clause has a topic. Consequently se is "attracted" simultaneously to both antecedents.

  • A variety of pressures make each antecedent attract the se more or less strongly. When one antecedent exerts a much stronger pressure than all others, there is no ambiguity. When two antecedents exert nearly equal pressures, there is ambiguity. So, there is no rule, only a competition in the listener's mind—and different antecedents may win in different listeners' minds.

Some pressures, each of which can be opposed or overridden by others:

  1. The topic of the main clause is the topic of the whole sentence, and normally maintains that dominance even inside the subordinate clause—at least, it tends to attract se more strongly by default.

  2. The beginning of a clause typically establishes its topic. Regardless of its case, the topic is the anchor to which the sentence gradually attaches information, usually culminating in the end of the clause, where the most important new thing is stated. Upon reaching the first word of a clause, normally the scope of what a pronoun can refer to is limited to subjects already mentioned in the sentence, though this is easily overridden at the start of a main clause (when there's nothing yet to refer to).

  3. Analogous word orders, especially those felt to be canonical, add weight to analogous choices of antecedent.

  4. Alterations of canonical word order add weight to choices of precedent that are not analogous to the canonical one.

  5. Interpretations that don't make sense repel rather than attract.

  6. Context: if preceding discourse has put a question "on the table", an antecedent of se that makes the sentence answer that question is favored.

  7. Juxtaposed ipse, proprius, and semet, sese and the like add weight favoring finding the antecedent in the subordinate clause.

  8. Irony, poetic meter, flair, whimsy—stylistic choices that run against conventional word order can reverse any of the above pressures. These depend on a listener's ability to "get it" and willingness to "play along".

To illustrate:

Quintus dixit se Marcum odisse.

Se, coming first in the subordinate clause, here establishes its topic: Quintus said something about himself, namely that he hates Marcus. Pressures (1), (2), and (3) prevail, and there is practically no ambiguity (absent contextual pressures).

Quintus dixit Marcum se odisse.

The familiar and canonical word order Aliquis dixit aliquem se infinitivum, where se is an object of the infinitive verb and refers to aliquis, pulls se toward Quintus (1, 3). But Aliquis se odit is also a reasonable sentence, and it pulls se toward Marcum almost as strongly (2, 5). Absent other pressures, Quintus will most likely be heard as the antecedent, but it's not certain. A speaker and listener might even resolve the ambiguity differently, without even noticing that there is an ambiguity.

2. Here are some ways to disambiguate it.

Specifically, here are some ways to overpower (1), helping se refer to the subject of the subordinate clause—though, since there are no rules, there are no guarantees, either.

Marcum se odisse, Quintus dixit.

Here Marcum is the only available antecedent when se arrives (2). If Quintus is to own se, it'll have to steal it from an already entrenched defender (perhaps another pressure). Cicero may have used this trick in De Finibus 5.20, though other pressures are at work, too (3, 5, 6):

Nam voluptatis causa facere omnia, cum, etiamsi nihil consequamur, tamen ipsum illud consilium ita faciendi per se expetendum et honestum et solum bonum sit, nemo dixit.

No one [neither Aristippus nor Hieronymus nor Carneades] has claimed that everyone acts for the sake of pleasure in the sense that even if we accomplish nothing, the mere intention of so acting is, because of itself alone, to be desired or honorable or the sole good [not because of Aristippus et al.)].

Another way out of the ambiguity is to use the passive voice:

A Quinto dicitur Marcus se odisse.

The passive voice makes Marcus the subject of both the main clause and the subordinate clause. Perhaps contextual pressure could still make se refer to Quinto, though. Moving Marcus to the beginning of the sentence and a Quinto to the end would add more pressures favoring Marcus as the antecedent.

Quomodo se aestimat Marcus? Non bene, puto. Quintus tamen dixit Marcum se odisse.

Here context pulls se toward Marcum (6), probably, but not certainly, excluding Quintus. A speaker who meant that Quintus said that Marcus hates himself would likely choose this wording spontaneously, without noticing the ambiguity. A listener is more likely to notice, but is still likely to take Marcum as the antecedent. (N.b. I am making this up as I am writing it. It's only a guess.)

Quintus dixit Marcum odisse se.

Here, moving se out of its canonical position and into the most important spot, the end of the sentence, suggests that the speaker wants you to understand that se refers to Marcum (4). A listener could still easily hear it the other way, though.

Here's an illustration of throwing in an ipse to overcome other pressures:

Quintus dixit cavum se fodisse. (Surely the speaker is emphasizing the fact that Quintus is talking about the hole: Quintus said of the hole that he had dug it.)

Quintus dixit cavum seipsum fodisse. (Well, maybe the speaker really does mean that Quintus said that the hole dug itself.)

I only made that up, but Allen & Greenough §300 (thanks, TKR!) says that using ipse, or even is, instead of the reflexive pronoun can resolve the ambiguity, with ipse having a stronger pull toward the main clause's subject (maybe contra what I just said):

[Caesar centuriones incusavit:] …Aut cur de sua virtute aut de ipsius diligentia desperarent?

[Caesar berated the centurions:] …Why should they despair either of their own courage or of Caesar's diligence?

So there's yet another pressure: separate use of both se and ipse suggests distinction, driving ipse to the main clause and se to the subordinate clause:

Quintus dixit Marcum se odisse atque ipsum dilexisse.

Of course, you could always drop the reflexive pronoun, though this sure sounds weird:

Quintus dixit Marcum Marcum odisse.

  • This is a great answer--I wish I could accept it as well! I'm curious: are these different "pressures" coming from your own observations or are you following a source?
    – brianpck
    Commented May 10, 2017 at 13:15
  • @brianpck No problem! :) I was glad to be triggered into following this line of thought to see where it led. It's entirely my own observations and speculations. I got started thinking about "pressures" in English many years ago when I read Fowler. It seems to me that English grammar works mainly by flexible pressures and analogies with competing precedents, not by rules—hence the failure (IMO) of things like CGEL that try to capture English grammar by adding ever more rules. I've been wondering if similar looseness occurs in Latin grammar.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented May 10, 2017 at 13:36
  • @BenKovitz I'm not really a confrontational type, but with all due respect, what is your opinion based on? CGELis an excellent grammar written by professional, serious linguists and it adequately describes English.
    – Alex B.
    Commented May 11, 2017 at 1:24
  • @AlexB. No offense taken. My opinion is largely based on interaction with the many CGEL fans on ELL, primed/biased by earlier looks at other rule-based approaches, especially Chomsky's. A classmate of mine and StoneyB have called the CGEL/Chomsky approach "Ptolemaic"—a beautifully apt analogy IMO. Ptolemaic astronomy does make accurate predictions; it is useful. But it's based on a false premise: uniform circular motion. CGEL etc. seem that way to me. I could be wrong, of course; only time will tell.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented May 12, 2017 at 4:59

This is an interesting question.
I started searching for some indirect statement examples, but I can't find any that display the same level of ambiguity that you're describing.
From Wikipedia:

Dicit se amare libertatem. ("He says that he loves freedom")
Credo regem dedisse omnibus leges. ("I believe that the king gave laws to everyone")
Speras nos visuros esse permulta cras. ("You hope that we shall see very many things tomorrow")
Docuit philosophus tertium non dari. ("The philosopher taught that no third possibility is given")
Audivi imperatorem in Senatu interfectum esse. ("I heard that the emperor was killed in the Senate")

From Grammatica:

Caesar dixit puerum librum portare. ("Caesar said that the boy carried a book.")
Marcus scit puerum librum portare. ("Marcus knows that the boy carries a book.")
Cornelius putat puerum librum portare. ("Cornelius thinks that the boy carries a book.")
Aurelia vidit puerum librum portare. ("Aurelia saw that the boy carried a book.")

Based on the last four examples especially, where the subject of the infinitive comes before the object of the infinitive in the sentence, I believe the correct translation of the "Marcum se odisse" section would be "Marcus hates himself". From my experience, the independent clause should be translated separately, so to speak, from the clause with the infinitive. Therefore, the "se" refers to Marcus and not the speaker. Thus, I do not think this sentence is truly ambiguous.
However, if all else fails, the context can often be very helpful for figuring out who the pronouns are really referring to.

  • 2
    Therefore, the "se" refers to Marcus and not the speaker: not neccesarily, because se can be an indirect reflexive: dcc.dickinson.edu/allen-greenough/Chapters/Chapter-300.html
    – TKR
    Commented Nov 19, 2016 at 23:26
  • @AlexB., I don't understand your comment -- the question is about ambiguity that can arise "when both the independent clause and the clause with the reflexive pronoun have third-person subjects".
    – TKR
    Commented May 5, 2017 at 17:34
  • @TKR sorry! Didn't read it carefully enough.
    – Alex B.
    Commented May 5, 2017 at 17:52

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